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Are free range eggs a con?

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(Image courtesy http://www.johnkaye.org.au/)

Recent research shows that Australians are buying millions of free-range eggs that aren't what they're claimed to be. Maiya Elali looks at how our animal rights concerns are being milked by unethical egg producers.

Mother knows best. I bet I’m not the only person that once or twice scoffed at the idiom, but there might be some truth in it. After she watched me carefully unpack the two dozen free-range organic eggs I’d purchased for fourteen dollars and the receipt flew out of the plastic bag, landing on the counter-top in front of her, she questioned whether I’d spent too much on eggs I couldn’t be sure were free-range:

“What does free-range mean, anyway?”

What she was implying was that I’d been conned. I insisted that it couldn’t be so — there are watchdogs for this sort of thing; you can’t just say something on the packaging that isn’t true! Well, apparently you can.

A study conducted by consumer advocacy group Choice revealed that last year, Australians purchased a minimum of 213 million “free-range” eggs that weren’t actually what we thought were free range. Free range eggs from farms with 1,500 hens per hectare cost $1.12 per 100 grams on average, but eggs from farms with 10,000 hens per hectare were charging more than that and Choice found zero correlation between cost and stock density.

What that means is a farm with 10,000 or 20,000 hens per hectare is free to charge a lot more than one with 5,000 or 300 hens, and they can still call their eggs “free-range.”  That’s a whole lot of cashing in on our well-meaning animal rights concerns.

It also means that small players who actually stick to the concept of “free-range” (you know what I mean: cloudless day, big grassy fields and a small group of feathery puffs pecking about and basking in the warm, afternoon sun) are having a hard time competing with the bigger farms who still get away with labelling their eggs free-range (for prime offenders, think Pace Farms, Manning Valley and Farm Pride, who make up for 30.7 per cent of the free-range eggs sold in Australia).

What we think of when we think "free-range" - Image courtesy Helen Wilkinson

The study also found that just 14 egg products, as compared to 21 egg products, were compliant with the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals: Domestic Poultry and had a density of 1,500 hens per hectare or less.

So, a lot of the pictures on the egg cartons of popular brands – the kind of pictures that sneakily conform to the aforementioned mental imagery – are just selling the same old horribly over-crowded stuff but for a higher price. Sounds like big business to me

There’s a push now for proper regulation and the setting up of a national code that would dictate the requisite stock density for a product to be considered free-range (and if you’d like to contribute, you can click here and voice your concerns). But all of this has left me wondering, why is big business so willing to make a quick, dishonest buck? And is our sudden zeal to buy into free-range worth a damn?

We, as a society, have become increasingly aware of social justice issues. The Choice study reports that 65 per cent of Australians bought free-range eggs in the last year. It’s just a sign of the times. We are striving for any number of things including equality, environmental sustainability, mental health programs, food for the poor, affordable housing and education — and so on.

Our communal conscience is fixed on social justice which isn't so easy to sidestep when we go about our daily chores like shopping. So, like a salve to our conscience, corporations shrewdly tap into what academic Slavoj Zizek calls “cultural capitalism”. The idea is that if we can buy free-range organic eggs or sustainably-made sneakers or recycle our iPhone when we get a new one every six months, we will feel better about the destruction our kind of society necessarily engenders. Corporations are all too happy to provide us with a means to wash away our collective guilt and allow us to continue partaking in the heady rush of the free-market.

And yes, if they can take the more cost-effective route and none are the wiser, why not? After all, the corporation’s singular purpose from which deviation is death is the accrual of profits. They exist solely to maximise returns for shareholders. 

 

So what about us? Is any of this making a difference, or are we all giants pantomiming a farcical play about caring and social justice while we continue to blindly stumble and crush whole species, forests, cultures, etc. in our pursuit to get the things we want?

Slavoj Zizek thinks so. And maybe he is on to something. Corporations, with their overt greenwashing campaigns, are merely delaying and distracting from the inevitable — that in order for us to live in the sort of picturesque vision we yearn for, we cannot simply apply the Band-Aid treatment to gaping wounds. After all, purchasing free-range eggs might be great in the short term. Some farms will reduce the density of their stock, permitting that stock to live freer and healthier lives while we too will eat healthier and feel better or less guilty.

But what we should really be considering is why we must campaign for this in the first place.

Why is it that our society permits thousands of stacked battery-cage hens pumped full of hormones to accelerate growth? Of course, it is the answer to mass-production at the lowest possible prices, so that as many people as possible can purchase as many eggs as they want whenever they want. It also takes up less space (which is a finite resource) and is more likely to guarantee produce year round.

If all eggs were to be free-range, the cost might shoot up dramatically as it would take a lot of space and require more care-giving in order to combat diseases and temperature changes and the like. So low-income earners would be priced out of the egg market.

It’s worth considering possible solutions such as communal or private farms.  And while I fully support a national code for free-range eggs and will continue to purchase them, I cannot help but wonder what could be done differently, and importantly, more smartly than the current practice.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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